The Four Varnas

Although every Hindu must follow general moral codes, each has individual duties according to his or her own nature. These are called sva-dharma, literally “own duties.” They are regulated by the system of four varnas (social classes) and four ashrams (stages of life).

The ideal varnasrama system is discussed here. (For more information on actual practice and related issues of caste and untouchability; please see Reincarnation and Samsara). Below we list the main duties of each of the four varnas.

Shudras (Artisans and Workers)

The shudras are the only section of society allowed to accept another’s employment; other varnas are occupationally and financially self-sufficient.

To render service to others.
To take pride in their work and to be loyal.
To follow general moral principles, (e.g. not to steal).
To marry (the only compulsory rite of passage).

Vaishyas (Farmers, Merchants, and Business People)

The vaishyas are the productive class. They and the two varnas below are called twice-born, indicating that they accept the sacred thread (symbolising spiritual initiation) and must perform certain rituals and rites of passage.

To protect animals (especially cows), and the land.
To create wealth and prosperity.
To maintain workers with abundant food, clothes, etc.
To trade ethically.
To give taxes to the kshatriyas (ruling class).

Kshatriyas (Warriors, Police, and Administrators)

The kshatriyas are the nobility, the protectors of society. Though permitted a number of privileges, they are expected to display considerable strength of body and character.

To protect the citizens from harm, especially women, children, cows, brahmanas, and the elderly.
To ensure that the citizens perform their prescribed duties and advance spiritually.
To be the first into battle and never to flee the battlefield.
To be true to their royal word.
To never refuse a challenge.
To develop noble qualities such as power, chivalry, and generosity.
To levy taxes (from the vaishyas only) and to never accept charity under any circumstances.
To take counsel, especially from the brahmanas.
To know the scriptures, especially the artha-shastras.
To deal uncompromisingly with crime and lawlessness.
To take responsibility for shortcomings in their kingdom.
To conquer their own minds and senses and to enjoy only according to scriptural injunction.
To beget an heir.

Brahmanas (Priests, Teachers, and Intellectuals)

The brahmanas provide education and spiritual leadership. They determine the vision and values of any society. Traditionally their basic needs were fulfilled so that they could dedicate themselves to their spiritual tasks.They are expected to live very frugally.

To study and teach the Vedas.
To perform sacrifice and religious ceremonies, and teach others how to perform such rituals.
To accept alms and also give in charity.
To offer guidance, especially to the kshatriyas.
To provide medical care and general advice free of charge.
To know Brahman (spirit, the self, God).
To never accept paid employment.
To develop all ideal qualities, especially honesty, integrity, cleanliness, purity, austerity, knowledge and wisdom.

Scriptural Passages

“It is better to perform one’s prescribed duties, even though faulty, than another’s duties. Destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.”

Bhagavad-gita 3.35

Brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras are distinguished by the qualities born of their own nature in accordance with the three material qualities.”

Bhagavad-gita 18.41

See also: Bhagavad-gita 2.31–8, 4.13, 18.41–8

Related Values and Issues

  • Duties, rights and responsibilities
  • A classless society
  • Moral dilemmas

Related Stories

Many in the Epics. They usually relate to the warrior dharma, and also give insight into the characteristics of genuine brahmanas.

Personal Reflection

  • Is a classless society the only solution to social exploitation?
  • Do these four varnas apply to Hinduism only?
  • Does a teacher need to develop particular values? How do they relate to the list given above?
  • Do you agree that education is a leadership role, and should be given greater priority than administration?
  • Why do you think that brahmanas are not meant to accept a salary? What is the principle behind this?

Common Misunderstandings

The system of four varnas was a man-made structure based on one group exploiting others
Hindu scholars contend that the original system was based on co-operation, mutual service to God, and commensurate rights and responsibilities. For example, although the warriors had great wealth and power, they were expected to be first into battle. The learned, brahmana class were given even greater respect but were required to have full control over mind and senses.

Dharma is considered the ultimate say in moral issues
This is true, but needs careful understanding. Dharma is to be applied with consideration (See Common Misunderstandings, in the Values in Practice section).The whole Mahabharata explores the nuances of dharma, and how difficult it can be to determine what is right action. When there is confusion, decisions are usually made in consultation with brahmins and other spiritual authorities

For More Information

Varnashrama Dharma, Varnashrama Dharama and Caste, and Caste and Untouchability.